'I still get to be governor.'

Noem is currently the betting favorite to be Trump’s running mate.

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MITCHELL — Standing next to a row of bookcases in the Mitchell High School library, South Dakota’s lieutenant governor was asked about taking the reins of state government.

It’s a sensitive subject for Larry Rhoden, who has embraced his supporting role as Gov. Kristi Noem’s second-in-command since entering office in 2019 following 16 years in the state Legislature.

“I try not to bring it up,” said the Union Center rancher when asked by News Watch about how his duties might change if Noem is chosen as Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee on the Republican ticket. “I don’t want to make it look like I’m thinking about it.”

Despite that political prudence, the subject is hard to avoid.

Noem is considered among the top contenders to become Trump’s running mate for 2024 along with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott; New York Rep. Elise Stefanik; former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Rhoden surmised that the selection process will accelerate now that Trump has wrapped up the nomination and is looking ahead to the July 15-18 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

Noem didn’t dodge the topic at a March 13 town hall that she and Rhoden attended in Mitchell. The event saw her sign two education-related bills while mingling with state legislators, staffers and residents, some of whom grilled her on landowner rights while others queried her on the VP sweepstakes.

Noem: 'I still get to be governor'

The 52-year-old governor confirmed that she met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida recently to discuss the possibility of her joining the ticket, adding that she is committed to helping Trump defeat Democratic President Joe Biden on Nov. 5.

"My answer used to be that President Trump and I have never talked about it, but now we have talked about it," Noem said during the town hall. "What I told him is that I will do whatever it takes for me to help him win. Of course, I’d rather stay with all of you if you’ll keep me. This is my favorite job. I love this job."

If she is chosen to run for VP, News Watch asked Noem, will she formally delegate authority to Rhoden during the time she is campaigning nearly full-time away from South Dakota? She responded that no such transfer of power will occur.

"If I’m nominated, I still get to be governor," Noem said. "So you keep me until I’m not governor. People who know me will tell you that I don’t sleep very well. The lieutenant governor is my partner and he helps me with a lot of stuff, but I will still be the governor and I will still be making the decisions."

South Dakota law addresses governor's absence

The answer may not be as clear as Noem suggests.

While speculation has swirled around her joining Trump's ticket, there has been less examination of what happens to state government if the chief executive is away from South Dakota for long stretches running for national office.

When South Dakota U.S. Sen. George McGovern was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, he remained in office during his campaign, which resulted in a landslide defeat to Republican incumbent President Richard Nixon. McGovern was re-elected to the Senate in 1974 despite being labeled a "part-time senator" by his opponent in a closer-than-expected race.

Running for national office as a governor is different, not only because of differing job descriptions but also due to the boundaries of state law.

The South Dakota Constitution, in Article 4, Section 6, states that when the governor is “unable to serve by reason of continuous absence from the state, or other temporary disability, the executive power shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor for the residue of the term or until the disability is removed.”

'Not new territory' for Noem

Like other constitutional interpretations, the assessment of Noem's "continuous absence" will likely hinge on how much political pressure is exerted upon her to hand over day-to-day operations during a rigorous presidential campaign.

Democratic state Sen. Reynold Nesiba of Sioux Falls, a member of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, told News Watch that the governor should resign her office if she is chosen to run for vice president.

"South Dakota taxpayers should not be footing the bill for her travel around the country, especially since she provides little to no transparency about her state airplane use and security-related costs while in office," Nesiba said.

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, noted that Noem has already weathered her share of controversy about pursuing a national political profile away from South Dakota on the heels of her hands-off handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which endeared her to some conservatives.

“It probably comes down to how much grief she wants to get, but this is not new territory for her,” Schaff said. “(The presidential campaign) wouldn’t be during the legislative session, and state government has a certain inertia that allows things to keep running.”

State Rep. Tony Venhuizen, a Sioux Falls Republican and former chief of staff to Noem and former Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said the “continuous absence” clause in the state constitution was necessary before the advent of smartphones and Zoom meetings.

Of course, there are also only so many hours in the day.

“There are a lot of things you can do remotely, but there are time considerations,” said Venhuizen, who attended the town hall in Mitchell. “I think most people understand that if you’re running for vice president, you’re going to be on the road a lot. There would have to be some practical considerations of who’s covering some of the duties and when.”

No 'resign to run' law in South Dakota

Five states have “resign to run" laws to prevent elected officials from neglecting state duties or using public resources while running for another office. South Dakota is not one of them.

Florida's Republican-dominated Legislature added an exemption for presidential and vice presidential campaigns in April 2023, before Gov. Ron DeSantis began his unsuccessful run for the White House.

The last sitting governor to run for vice president on a major ticket was Mike Pence of Indiana, who was running for re-election when he was selected as Trump’s running mate in July 2016. Pence withdrew from the gubernatorial race and endorsed Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb as the GOP nominee.

Trump/Pence and Holcomb both won, but Pence opted not to resign and stayed in office until Holcomb was sworn in Jan. 9, 2017, vowing to “serve Hoosiers until the very last hour.”

First-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was a surprise selection as 2008 running mate to GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who lost to Barack Obama. Palin remained in office during the tumultuous campaign and returned to Alaska after the defeat with a much-expanded national profile.

She resigned in July 2009 with 18 months left in her term, citing the pressure and financial burden of a flood of in-state ethics complaints against her.

Rhoden offers stability in Pierre

Rhoden has been a steady presence during Noem's often turbulent time in office, marked by five different chiefs of staff and no one currently in that role. The administration has seen higher-than-normal turnover among Cabinet positions and executive staff.

The 65-year-old Rhoden, a former South Dakota House majority leader whose legislative experience stretches back more than two decades, is viewed as a stabilizing force by lawmakers such as Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown. “If I have any questions, I contact Larry," he told News Watch in 2023.

At the Mitchell town hall, Noem credited Rhoden with helping her learn the ropes as a rookie legislator in Pierre in 2007, something she kept in mind when it came time to choose a running mate for her 2018 gubernatorial run.

"Because I was a farmer and rancher, I was advised to choose a businessman from Sioux Falls," Noem told attendees. "So instead I chose a rancher from West River. I trust his instincts and values. He loves the Lord and loves his family. I knew that if I got killed the next day, he’d run this state exactly as I would, and that was important to me."

Rhoden is viewed as a likely candidate for governor in 2026, which would mean a highly competitive GOP primary battle against U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson and possibly Attorney General Marty Jackley, among other candidates.

Rhoden could be an incumbent at that point if a Trump/Noem ticket gains the White House. Noem would likely resign as governor after the Nov. 5 election – well before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2025 – to allow Rhoden to start preparing for his budget address and the legislative session.

"It would make sense to have that handover take place before the session started," said Venhuizen.

Thune seeks leadership in Senate

Even more tangible than Noem VP speculation is the possibility that South Dakota Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune will be voted by his peers as Senate Leader in December, taking the reins after nearly two decades from Kentucky's Mitch McConnell.

"It would be the most influence South Dakota has ever had in Washington,"  Venhuizen said of the possibility of having Noem as vice president and Thune as Senate Republican leader, in the majority or minority depending on the election.

Former South Dakota Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle served as both minority leader and majority leader in the Senate before being ousted by Thune in a landmark 2004 election.

Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate as minority whip, has met with GOP colleagues privately and is viewed by Washington insiders as the favorite to win the job in a secret ballot over U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, though other contenders could emerge.

Thune criticized Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and called for him to withdraw his 2016 candidacy following the release of a 2005 Access Hollywood tape of Trump having a lewd conversation about sexual mistreatment of women.

Yet Thune twice voted against impeachment and endorsed the former president last month, a nod to the reality of procuring power in a Make America Great Again-fueled Republican Party.

Noem softens stance on Trump

While the 63-year-old Thune has been building up to the role of Senate leader for more than a decade, Noem’s rise to the level of White House hopeful is a more recent phenomenon.

She started off as a Trump critic while serving in Congress, saying in an interview with Yankton's WNAX radio in late 2015 that "he’s not my candidate” and calling Trump's comments about banning Muslims "un-American." In a separate interview looking ahead to the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, Noem said of Trump’s sizable lead in the polls: “I look at the candidates who are running and think, ‘Who do I want in the room when we’re negotiating with Iran?’ It’s not going to be Donald Trump. His principles and values don’t align with mine, and his offensive nature wouldn’t serve us very well in the presidency.”

Noem softened that stance when Trump became the 2016 nominee and defeated Hillary Clinton to win the White House. When Noem became governor and publicly derided COVID restrictions after initially supporting them, she and Trump became more politically connected.

Noem’s national profile and status within Trump’s orbit surged in the summer of 2020, leading to his visit to Mount Rushmore for July 4 festivities and her speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Washington.

When he lost to Biden that year but decided to run again in 2024, Noem decided that her best path was not challenging him for the nomination but rather remaining a strong supporter and perhaps going along for the ride.

"She started to see her ticket to national prominence as a vice presidential nominee," said Schaff. "Because Trump already served a term, he can only constitutionally serve one more term as president. So if he wins, you would have to think that the person serving as vice president becomes his heir apparent."

Can Noem help win presidential election?

So will Trump actually pick Noem as his running mate?

It would be much less surprising than McCain's choice of Palin in 2008, since Trump and Noem are already aligned in many ways and Noem is more politically seasoned than Palin.

The question is whether she helps the ticket strategically, since featuring Noem — who is more conservative than Trump on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage — doesn't appeal to the type of moderate suburban voter needed to win.

"The traditional view is that you choose a running mate to broaden your appeal or improve your chances in the general election," said Michael Card, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. "So it's either picking someone very different from yourself or someone very similar. Mike Pence was needed (in 2016) to shore up the evangelical vote. But Trump doesn't need that as much because Christian nationalists generally appreciated the policies put forward by his administration or confirmed by the Supreme Court."

Another factor is whether the VP nominee can withstand the heat of the campaign and not make mistakes that harm the ticket.

Noem sparked national headlines for posting an infomercial video for a Texas cosmetic dental office on her personal social media channels March 11, which drew a lawsuit from a nonpartisan consumer group and questions about her ethical  judgment.

In tennis and politics, "unforced errors" can be the most damaging.

As of March 17, Noem is no longer listed as the betting favorite to get the vice presidential nod, falling behind South Carolina's Scott but still ahead of Stefanik, Gabbard and Ramaswamy.

In the end, though, there is just one person that South Dakota's governor needs to persuade, and Trump likes those who can handle the glare. Noem has done more mainstream TV interviews recently to answer critics who said she is more suited to "preaching to the choir" on conservative outlets such as Fox News.

"There are few politicians as good as Kristi Noem at sticking to the script," Card said. "If the script is well-presented and especially if she has a friendly audience, which doesn't necessarily mean a debate audience, she does very well."

As the audition continues, so will the chances to expand those expectations.